Then Nicole Said, 'Good Night' And 'I Love You'

WHEN JUDITHA BROWN was called to testify last week at the civil trial of O. J. Simpson, the striking dark-haired woman rose from her second-row seat and dropped her glasses. It was a poignant moment, reminiscent of another night when she left her glasses behind at a restaurant. Once she took the stand, in the final full week of the plaintiffs' case, she told what little she knew of the deaths of her daughter Nicole Brown Simpson and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman, the waiter who brought the eyeglasses to Nicole's home. Mrs. Brown spoke movingly of her premonitions on the night her daughter was killed, and of Nicole's final words in a phone call. "And then she said, "Good night' and "I love you.' And I said, "I love you,' and those were the last words," she said, sobbing.

Mrs. Brown filled the courtroom with the emotional drama of what, in the end, is a family tragedy as well as an American spectacle. At her daughter's wake, she testified, Simpson had leaned over Nicole's coffin, kissed her on the lips and said, "I'm so sorry, Nicki. I'm so sorry." Mrs. Brown said she had followed her former son-in-law and the father of her grandchildren. "Did you have anything to do with this?" she testified that she asked him. "He said, "I loved your daughter'." The implication: Simpson's sidestep spoke volumes. There was more. Led by her lawyer, John Kelly, and staring hard at Simpson, she recalled a phone conversation with him three weeks before the murders dealing with his relationship with Nicole. "He said, "The first time she left me I take the blame. It was my fault. But the second time it's going to hurt'."

The remarks seemed incriminating, but the defense had a trap waiting. Defense lawyer Robert Baker showed a videotape of a 1994 TV interview with Diane Sawyer in which Mrs. Brown gave a different version of Simpson's response to her question of his involvement. "No, I loved your daughter," she then had reported his saying. Baker suggested, ever so gently, that she had now dropped Simpson's denial. Later he used another video to attack her testimony that Simpson was "very angry" and upset the day of the murders. The amateur tape, taken after his daughter's dance recital, showed Simpson laughing and receiving a kiss from Mrs. Brown. "And is it your testimony Simpson was angry?" Baker asked, making his point. When Mrs. Brown finished her testimony, she was embraced by Fred Goldman, Ronald's father, who was to be the plaintiffs' last witness this week.

Baker's adept cross-examination scored points, but alone it did not undermine a tightly focused case that was dotted with witnesses and evidence unseen at the criminal trial. Last week the plaintiffs even trotted out Simpson's old friends to try to puncture his credibility. They included former girlfriend Paula Barbieri (on tape), Robert Kardashian (through his deposition) and Leroy (Skip) Taft--each of them reluctantly chipping away at Simpson's account on some points, supporting him on others. The most anticipated was A. C. Cowlings, Simpson's longtime loyal friend who drove during the Bronco chase. Confronted with a deposition he gave last spring, Cowlings conceded that Nicole had told him that Simpson had hit her and pulled her hair during the 1989 fight that resulted in Simpson's pleading no contest. That contradicted Simpson's testimony denying that he had ever hit Nicole.

The defense, beginning its case this week, is barred from making unsubstantiated claims of a police frame-up or introducing other theories of possible suspects. Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki has also allowed damaging but potentially reversible evidence like last week's testimony from a worker at a women's shelter describing a phone call from a frightened woman named Nicole. The defense is promising to bring back familiar faces like Detectives Philip Vannatter and Tom Lange and criminalist Dennis Fung to once again attack the quality of the physical evidence against Simpson. But their case still hinges on O.J., who will be called to testify again, possibly to conclude the case.

Simpson may get a boost this week from the judge in the ongoing fight over custody of his two children. Judge Nancy Wieben Stock was expected to rule soon, and the guessing was she would award custody to Simpson, rather than to Juditha and Lou Brown, the grandparents who now take care of Sydney, 11, and Justin, 8. In fact, NEWSWEEK has learned that Lou Brown was already removed as a guardian this past summer, leaving Juditha as the only guardian at the moment. Sources said the judge concluded that Lou Brown had sold videotapes, photographs and diary notations belonging to Nicole's estate for a considerable sum of money. The judge was described as angered by Brown's actions, considering them a possible conflict of interest. Brown lawyer Kelly declined comment. Meanwhile, the defense clearly hopes to benefit from a favorable custody decision; it assumes jurors will learn of that ruling. Indeed, in this view, jurors may even worry that awarding money damages against Simpson would only hurt his children's future.